Some crime novels I adore or loathe instantly; others provoke more tepid reactions. Few, however, cause me to turn each page in a state of utter bewilderment, wondering why I should keep going, but also made me incapable of stopping. This was the precise reaction that THE MAZE (Scribner, 415 pp., $30), Nelson DeMille’s eighth novel featuring the ex-N.Y.P.D. detective (and more recently, ex-federal agent) John Corey.
We’re in Corey’s head the whole time, and it’s an exhausting place to be. As an ex-lover (he refers to her as a “former fornicator”) tells him, “You buck authority, and you don’t like rules and regulations.” No kidding. When he meets a young woman for the first time, he thinks she “needs a good spanking.” He’s also wont to make “politically incorrect jokes about the world of Islam.”
When Corey actually investigates the crime at the heart of the book — one clearly inspired by the Gilgo Beach killings of several sex workers, replete with corruption at every level of law enforcement — the set pieces are genuinely thrilling. But to get there requires sitting with a man who’s so repellent that I constructed an alternate narrative universe where the women are fully fleshed-out humans, objectifying Corey to the extreme.
For Temple Jennings, the small-town Oklahoma sheriff who returns in Laurie Loewenstein’s engaging new Dust Bowl-era mystery, FUNERAL TRAIN (Akashic, 317 pp., paperback, $18.95), day-to-day matters have become challenging. Drought and the Great Depression make for desperate times, and now the very train that his beloved wife, Etha, is on has derailed, landing her and many others in the hospital (or worse). Was it a tragic accident, or did someone wreck the train on purpose?
Temple has barely begun investigating the train crash when the local recluse, Ruthie-Jo Mitchem, is killed. Her private life yields more pernicious secrets than he could ever have imagined, tangling him in “a big old spiderweb” of suspects.
Reading “Funeral Train” feels like being catapulted back in time to experience the 1930s at an almost unbearably visceral level. The parched prairie is “flat as a dried cowpat. Brown. Beige. Russet. Snuff. One tint merging into the next, stitched together with an unbroken line of telephone poles.” In town, the buildings have “absorbed the grit of the swirling dust storms, and taken on the color of a turbid creek,” and “a rusted sign screeched in the wind.”
Cash Blackbear — her birth name’s Renee, but anyone of importance knows better than to use it — has weathered a great deal in her 19 years. The young Ojibwe woman, a survivor of the foster care system, lives on the edge of Red River Valley. She’s polished a hard-drinking, pool-playing, truck-driving veneer that conceals almost every trace of vulnerability, except when her guardian, Sheriff Wheaton, enlists her help (and her visions) to solve crimes.
In SINISTER GRAVES (Soho Crime, 227 pp., $27.95), the third installment in Marcie R. Rendon’s winning 1970s-set series, Cash investigates the murder of an Indigenous woman who turns out to have unexpected connections to the White Earth Reservation, which Cash knew well as a child, and to the sinister doings of a nearby church, which is twisting religion to justify more than one killing.
As Wheaton explains to a disbelieving Cash when matters have gone very sour, “Human beings do some pretty awful things sometimes, and sometimes they use God as their excuse, or the devil, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.”
I was absorbed in the world Ava Barry concocted in DOUBLE EXPOSURE (Pegasus Crime, 383 pp., $25.95) to the point where I found myself irritated when I had to do other tasks that took me away from reading. And yet, when the big reveal arrived, I was annoyed — largely at myself, for not seeing what was coming, and especially for not picking up on Barry’s reliance on noir conventions (from Hitchcock and David Lynch, sure, but also from classic 1960s Sébastien Japrisot novels like “Trap for Cinderella” and “The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun”).
To wit: Rainey Hall leads an all-female private investigative team, which has been hired by the heiress Melia van Aust to figure out who’s been sending her threatening messages and to locate her younger brother, Jasper. Jas, it seems, vanished after their parents’ vicious murders four years before and hasn’t been seen since.
Rainey, all too familiar with family dysfunction, swiftly crashes through all boundaries and enmeshes herself in Melia’s life, even moving into the van Aust mansion, Slant House. The red flags are not just visible, they’re waving wildly.
The writing is evocative, especially when Rainey narrates her tortured past, her longing for normalcy and especially her propensity for self-sabotage. “It’s like there’s this deep pit inside of you, and every once in a while you climb inside and pull the lid over your head,” her colleague, Lola, tells her. “Nobody can reach you.”
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